by carl wilson

Bowie, MF Doom and Proto-Bandonyms?

bowiep318.jpg
David Bowie and his mouthpiece(s).

In a followup to the Randy Newman discussion last week, Peli emailed me today, calling me on my overly dismissive reference to Bowie's use of Brechtian influences compared to Newman's. We got to chatting, and out of that conversation came his post tonight on Bowie, MF Doom and "song ontology." You should read it - it's very preliminary but very smart stuff on the question of what forms of address are available in song other than first-person or fictional-first-person, and what all these options say about song-as-persona. (Right off you'd have to add the third-person storytelling of the ballad, which maybe is "making a speech" and maybe ain't.)

His questions overlap vastly with my EMP paper last year on the "bandonym" - the fracturing of the singular songwriter persona into a fictional "band" via a plural-sounding pseudonym, eg. "The Mountain Goats," and what effect that has on the illusion of a speaking 'subject' in a song. (Unfortunately it no longer appears to be online.) In some ways Peli seems to be arguing that what I claimed was mainly a 1990s development really happened in the 1970s and was accomplished by Bowie: We both discussed Pessoa's heteronyms, for example. I hope to get more into it, but I'm in the middle of other writing at the moment so it will have to wait. Again, read Peli first.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 24 at 12:48 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

COMMENTS

And - as I was saying to you on email last night, John - in Newman's case I think there is a great deal of interpretation and commentary, done through things like choruses and jarring shifts of voice and even musical quotation. I don't think he comes to it via Brecht, by the way, but I think he finds his own repertoire of V-effects meant to make the listener doubt and judge the same way the antinaturalistic techniques in Brecht do.

Which I think Bowie does much less of, at least until later in his career. (I could certainly imagine a Brechtian stage adaptation of the Young Americans album, for instance. But Ziggy Stardust isn't that.)

John suggested to me that Newman may come to some of these approaches more through Mark Twain than Brecht, which I think is a great point - and it'd be intriguing to figure Twain as the source of an American Brechtian tradition...

Posted by zoilus on August 25, 2006 12:17 PM

 

 

Good call on "Baal," Peli; you're right, it's a vivid parallel, especially since there are hints that the character of Baal himself is a semi-autobiographical analogue for Brecht. Didn't Bowie sing the songs of "Baal" at one point?

I'll be posting more on this on my blog when I get a chance. Interesting topic -- thanks, Peli & Carl.

Posted by john on August 25, 2006 11:49 AM

 

 

Really fascinating stuff, John, though I'm not absolutely sure Brecht doesn't make extensive use of unreliable speaker. Even in the third person Bhaal's Hymn, the Free Indirect Discourse is so completely immersed in Bhaal's perspective, that for all intents and purposes it's a monologue by Bhaal, omniscient (and differentiated from its subject) only epistemologically and not ethically.
Just like... well.. "*Ziggy* played guitar", "The return of *The Thin White Duke*", "Who will love *Aladdin Sane*".

Posted by Peli Grietzer on August 25, 2006 8:14 AM

 

 

regarding the 3rd-person story-telling of the ballad --

as i recall, one of Brecht's formulations for the "Brechtian" style of acting he urged was the storyteller: that the actor was analogous to the pedestrian witness of a "street scene" who then narrates the story to a 3rd party. thus, the balladeer him(him!)self appears in more than one Brecht play, most famously at the beginning of his rewrite of that John Gay play that later provided Hit Parade material for Bobby Darin.

for the actor, what this means is: the actor is not only persuading the audience of the emotional truth of scenes, but is also passing moral judgments on the story being told, just as someone who saw a car crash would do as he or she told the story: emotional urgency AND intellectual and moral judgment.

in this sense, Chuck Berry singing "You never can tell" may be more Brechtian than Newman or Bowie. he tells the story and passes along subtle judgments on the protagonists and *their* witnesses. Woody Guthrie -- any 3rd-person balladeer -- does this. (and, personal note, i made a personal breakthrough in the writing of topical ballads when i realized that the bulk of Guthrie's were in the 3rd person.)

the adopting of fictional and/or semi-fictional personae a la Newman and Bowie seems more out of the Anglo-mask (persona) tradition of Browning, Yeats, and Pound, all of whom theorized on masks (and/or personae) and their use in lyric. what Brecht brings to the topic, it seems, is the decadence-by-association of Weimar Germany (commented on & embodied in Brecht's first play, the ballad-play "Baal"). but Brecht probably brings more and i'm just missing it.

another personal note: many years ago i acted in 4 Brecht plays. in practice, i never really got the idea of "Verfremdungseffekt"; but then, i never had any Stanislavskian technique to overcome. it seems that Brecht was critiquing the notion of "living room realism"; and maybe that's the point of citing Brecht in regards to Newman and Bowie; they were reacting to the "living room realism" of the '70s singer-songwriter style, and its unconscious and nonjudgmental transmission of middle-class ideals. (though it's more complicated than that -- Carole King represents a thread in the tapestry of feminism [sorry].) and -- to get back to the point of your original Newman post, Carl -- they were doing it in a way that hadn't been done much before in pop songwriting. (though i must mention "Brother can you spare a dime" in this context; obvs, neither Yip Harburg nor Bing Crosby was trying to convince us that he was literally and personally a penniless unemployed desperate veteran.)

Posted by john on August 24, 2006 5:56 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson